BY JESSE SMITHEY
MURFREESBORO — With the Class AA baseball state championship a smidgen past its midpoint Friday afternoon, Gibbs baseball coach Geff Davis summoned Brayden Taylor from his shortstop position and put him on the pitcher’s mound.
Taylor had calmed the waters in Gibbs’ first win of the week and Davis needed him to silence a Pigeon Forge rally that had tied the game at 8-all in the top of the fourth.
Taylor did just that.
And even when Pigeon Forge loaded the bases in the final inning with no outs, Taylor found a way out of that, too. In a 14-8 victory by Gibbs on Friday, one might be hard-pressed to find an MVP pitcher for the day.
But Taylor was definitely the guy.
“I went out there (in the seventh) and said, ‘Hey, I know they got the bases loaded but I think the scoreboard says we’re up six. Let’s just start working hitters and get outs,'” said Gibbs coach Geff Davis. “We get that double-play ball. And that’s baseball. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. And sometimes it’s just meant to be.”
It was meant to be for the Eagles (32-7) who lifted their first state championship trophy since 2010 and their second overall, defeating their District 3-AA rival Pigeon Forge (33-6) for the third time in five tries this season.
Also the leadoff hitter, Taylor went 2 for 3 with two runs scored and two walks. The contest proved to be an offensive exhibition for the first four innings, and the Eagles finished with 13 hits and seven walks. Braden Graves finished 2 for 4 with two RBIs. Brady Strange went 3 for 4.
“It was really special (this week). We started out slow (on Tuesday) and just built it up all the way,” said Bryson Shown, who scored three runs Friday. “We just had fun playing baseball this week. Hit the ball, and nobody was stopping it.”
Pigeon Forge opened the first inning with three runs — just the start the Tigers needed. Why? Since they had to play two games Thursday to get to the championship game, they burned through some pitching depth, namely 6-foot-6 hurler Riley Franklin.
So to give starting pitcher Logan Johnson, who’d only thrown a handful of innings all season, some run support was huge. Johnson helped in that with an RBI-single. He went 2 for 4 with two RBIs.
But Johnson didn’t last long on the mound. Pigeon Forge coach Mike Guinn made a change after three walks and brought in the diminutive senior Carson Catlett. Still, Gibbs struck for six runs in the bottom of the first, highlighted by a three-run home run by designated hitter Dawson Gentry.
Pigeon Forge didn’t balk at the 6-3 deficit; instead, it tied the score at 6-all in the top of the second on an RBI-single by Dylan Loy and two-run triple by Franklin.
The Tigers plated two runs in the top of the fourth to pull even (8-8) with Gibbs again. But then Taylor entered took command on the mound. He gave up two hits the rest of the way.
Gibbs exploded for six runs in the bottom of the fifth to create separation, though Pigeon Forge loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh on a Gibbs error, hits batsman and a single. That brought up the top of the order for Pigeon Forge.
“Bases loaded with no one out, I feel like we still have a shot,” said Pigeon Forge coach Mike Guinn. “I thought we were two hits away from making this 14-11, and then one swing could tie it.
“But their pitcher, he’s a good player. And he made a good play.”
Taylor induced a grounder from Bryce Effler right back to the mound. Taylor fired home for the force out, and Gibbs catcher Carson Raby pumped a ball over the first for a double play.
Taylor struck out Justin McClellan to end the threat and the game.
“When you play four days in a row and you burn a lot of pitching, possibly, one of these (offensive-minded) games may happen. And it showed up here on Friday,” said Davis. “They scored three on us early, and we responded.
“But give Pigeon Forge credit. They got a great group of kids, and they just kept competing. … Luckily, we had B.T. (Brayden Taylor) there in the end. We hadn’t used him much this week. He really did a good job for us.”